Twenty-First Century Luddism

In an ironic twist in my life, I’ve become rather a Luddite. The original Luddites were English workers who rebelled and destroyed a good bit of machinery during the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. They believed the machines would eventually replace them as laborers (as indeed they did) and so decided to “kill” the usurpers, as it were. Mechanization and automation continue steadily, however, and even today people lose their jobs to the latest computer programs, robots, and other bits of machine wizardry. As in the factory, so in the home, and technology has infiltrated every aspect of our lives. For this reason, the term “Luddite” has come to denote anyone who opposes the inexorable onslaught of technological progress.

So when I say I’m a bit of a Luddite, that’s what I mean. Somewhere over the last ten-ish years I’ve given up on gadgetry. I’ve had a smartphone for about two years now, and my friends still tell me how weird it is to see me use one. To be fair, I probably only utilize a small fraction of its capabilities, and I slightly resent even that. But in a technology-driven society, I didn’t have much of a choice. I still tell people I’d rather have a typewriter than a computer, that I’d delete my social media profiles if I could quickly communicate with people without them, and that I very much enjoy my old-fashioned analog watch, thank you very much. Of course, I say that as I blog, so I’m not without a contradiction or two in my attitudes.

And remember: I called this Luddite attitude an ironic twist. Why? Because of all the people I knew growing up, I was the most tech-savvy. I’ve built computers, designed websites, programmed graphing calculators (oh, high school), and a half-dozen other things. I worked as an IT professional for two years, managing server farms, VoIP boxes, VPNs, and workstations. I’ve ran cables, punched jacks, and repeatedly said, “have you tried turning it off and back on again.” At one point, I wanted to be a biomedical engineer so I could design the next generation of cybernetics. I even had my favorite prosthetics picked out in case I lost a limb. I didn’t just love technology; I wanted to be it.

Obviously, hating owning a smartphone and planning a transformation into the Six Million Dollar Man are fairly opposed to one another.

For me, I think the change happened as I placed a higher premium on people. Sure, I embraced a larger love of books and history and such as well, but it seems mostly driven by people. Technology claims to bring us closer to together, but only parts of it do — and the rest does the opposite. When I lived halfway across the continent, for example, I was grateful to Skype for letting me see my family on occasion. But consider Facebook. Yes, we now know everything about the lives of everyone; all the current goings-on are online for the world to see (or just your friends, depending on your privacy settings). Or are they? People control what goes on their sites, after all, and it’s generally either a highlight reel or a litany of the worst of the worst. Few and far between are the posts saying, “I had tea. It was an average day.” That’s problematic.

Human beings are creatures of comparison and competition. We pit our lives against the lives of everyone else we know and try to prove ourselves to be the best, brightest, happiest, and most blessed. But if it’s my life versus someone else’s social media page, it’s not a case of me vs. them; it’s me at my most average vs. their highlight reel. It’s an unfair comparison by any metric. I fully believe it’s one contributing factor to the correlation between social media consumption and depression. The more we see others’ bests, the worse our worst (or average) looks, and we become depressed. Then we can factor in the number of posts which are deliberately incendiary and those which otherwise make us angry, sad, or another negative emotion.

That’s why most of my Facebook feed is books and bad Christian jokes.

Technology can also be rather obviously detrimental. Our culture’s widespread acceptance of pornography in its various guises has combined with the power of the Internet to give more access to smut than ever before in human history (and porn itself seems to drive the development of certain media technologies). As a result, we have a toxically pornified society where sex is almost a god in and of itself, an ultimate good to be gotten and revered at all costs. Anything standing in the way of sexual gratification — things like conventional morality — are quickly discarded. But the sex on the screen isn’t real sex; like our social media personas, sex acts in pornography are carefully crafted to produce a desired effect. There’s nothing real about it. Nevertheless, sex and porn have become genuine addictions for many, many people, and the content of porn has done everything from warp users’ sexuality to render men impotent in the presence of a physical flesh-and-blood woman.

One a more insidious level, technology has set us in a downward spiral into workaholism and burnout. When office e-mail and work contacts are accessible in a device you carry around 24/7, it’s incredibly hard to resist the temptation to check your messages or answer the phone as soon as it makes a sound. As a result, more and more people live in a reality of being on-call indefinitely, and leaving work at the office is an impossibility; after all, I can work out of my pocket. The constant connection to labor sans even a single day of genuine rest and distance takes a heavy toll, spiritually, psychologically, and physically. I admit I haven’t seen the numbers, but I wouldn’t be surprised if productivity levels have actually decreased in the smartphone era. What I do know is that happiness is down, job satisfaction is down, anxiety is up, and a host of other horrible things as well. We can’t lay the full blame on technology, but neither can we naively dismiss it as a non-factor.

Then there’s the absent morality of Hollywood, television, music . . . and please don’t get me started on healthy people who skip church to stream worship and participate in “virtual Communion,” as if such a thing were possible.

Not all technology is bad, of course. Medical advances are good things, safer vehicles are good things, and I’m very much a fan of alternative energy and new ways to care for our environment. But technology is not the Savior. No, technology can be good, but even the good bits can have bad effects, and the good effects can’t save souls. There is no digital atonement. Samsung didn’t die for your sins. Zuckerberg will never be your friend in real life and offer authentic human connection.

Let us be wary of technology. Don’t adopt new gadgets uncritically. Don’t love things and use people instead of loving people and using things. Regard the tools as tools, not saviors. And give your life to Jesus who died for you.

A Very Quick Look at Social Media

In the ancient lore of our culture, from a time so long ago the children of the race of Men have all but forgotten, we read of a book. This book, legend says, contained the names of individual people — and not just names, but copies of their likenesses as well. In fact, the myth goes so far as to state this book of likenesses — a book of faces — was simply known as a face book, and it served to help people put names to faces, faces which they would actually encounter in real life — face to face.

How absurd.

Yet similar legends exist. One maintains the existence of personal territories, areas rightly called (by their owners) “My Space.” Still another decisively refers to such diverse things as birdsong and heart palpitations as “twitter.”

Ludicrous.

It’s easy to laugh at how the world changes and drags language along with it. The simplest of words mutates and gains a new referent even as the objects and concepts themselves gain new linguistic signifiers. Such is the way of the evolution of language. But as fascinating as that is to geeks like me, that’s another topic for another day. Today I want to deal with the contemporary iterations of those things I mentioned above: Facebook, MySpace (such as it is), Twitter, and their ilk. Today’s topic is the theology of social media. And, yes, there is a theological way to discuss social media, just as there are ways to theologically consider every other aspect and artifact of our culture (and the others, too). So let’s begin at the beginning.

Social media encompasses the sphere of digital platforms used primarily to communicate with other people and stay abreast of their lives. It’s those things we use to publicly share personal information about ourselves and receive information in kind with which we may then interact. The biggest social media platform is, of course, Facebook, but social media also include things like Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Snapchat. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what’s going on behind the scenes.

At first blush, they’re pretty handy things. I’ve sworn multiple times that I would delete my Facebook profile if it weren’t so useful. I can communicate with people rapidly and unintrusively. I can keep up with news on all levels as well as the goings-on of individual lives. I can share images and articles I want people to see without having to plan a time to get together for a group discussion. And I can re-evaluate all of my life choices when someone I haven’t spoken to in a decade wants to reconnect and I’m forced to wonder why we were ever friends in the first place. Plus there’s a darker side, the side of online bullying, harassment, stalking, and similar evils. Of course, all of these things are possible on any social network, not just Facebook. They’re simply inherent in the social media system.

In our current day and age, participation in social media is practically mandatory. Employers ask for your Facebook profile, church members read your blog (hi, guys!), and family follow you on Twitter, reading your profundities 140 characters at a time. It’s incredibly difficult to fully extricate yourself from the digital age; how, then, should a Christian think about it all?

The first thing is to recognize digital presence is but a travesty of personal presence. Yes, you have 3,126 friends online, but how many do you ever take out to lunch? Do you have friends over for tea, or do you only talk to them whilst at home through a computer or cell phone? Electronic messages can’t convey tone or vocal inflection and are thus easily misunderstood. What messages are better said face-to-face? I realize I grew up in the South (by the grace of God), but I believe so much conflict could be avoided if we’d simply sit together on the porch drinking sweet tea and talking together instead of typing out our grievances and leaving our passive-aggressive words on the Internet for their intended target to trip over.

It only gets worse when we allow our online presence to overshadow our personal, physical presence. How many times have you gone out to eat and witnessed an entire family seated at the same table but not speaking to each other, all because they’re all glued to their phones? They would rather be online than at the same table with each other. Many have lost the ability to listen to someone else for an extended period of time without consulting Facebook or a Twitter feed. (And let’s be honest: that’s not really listening, now, is it?) Our attention spans are suffering, our ability to interact with others is deteriorating, all because we’ve traded in physical presence for social media.

Second, social media can be (and often are) the perfect tools of deception. I’m not even talking about all those posts no one ever bothers to fact-check. I’m talking about us, ourselves. It’s easy to be brave over the Internet and talk to your “crush.” But if you haven’t the courage to do it in person, why waste his/her time acting like someone you’re not? We can fully edit everything about our personalities simply by sitting at a keyboard in a different location than our interlocutor. (And don’t get me started on PhotoShop.)

It should be obvious to the Christian that these two concerns alone merit caution. We are a people of authentic community. We’re called to bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2), to be a family, a single body of brothers and sisters (1 Cor. 12). These are hard to to do if you’re never in the same room together. While it’s certainly a boon to us to have easy communication with each other, under no circumstances can we let that be our sole presence. We must be physically present so we can laugh together and hold each other when we cry. We should strive (if we are medically able) to be bodily present during times of worship. No form of online “community” can ever replace that. Likewise, we are a people of truth who follow the one who is Truth (John 14:6). If we masquerade about on the Internet, disguising ourselves, pretending to be someone we’re not, then we’re not of God but of Satan, the father of lies (John 8:44).

While social media can be a great tool to connect us (at surface level) with another human being, and while it can even enable to share our faith (when done properly), it can also be a place for both explicit deception and counterfeit community (among other things). But since it’s all but inevitable we participate in this digital age, all I can say is this:

Log on with caution.

Gadgets & Gizmos

We live in the “Information Age.” Our society isn’t hung up on what you can do as much as it is what (or who) you know. A college degree, once the ultimate, nigh-unattainable goal of many has now become standard issue, and more people are pursuing advanced degrees than ever before. Our quality of life and sense of self-worth is largely dependent on how much we know and the nature of the material itself. (For example, knowing about data migration is probably a bit more helpful than learning the migratory patterns of butterflies. At least in certain circles.) And how do we manage all this information we learn, store, and use every day? Technology. Technology is the logical outgrowth of information, for it allows data to be managed and applied. As we learn new principles of biology and engineering, we can craft better prosthetics, drug delivery systems, and surgical techniques, among other things. Information Age cultures are largely driven by wave after wave of technological progress.

This puts the Christian in the interesting position of having to sort out what exactly to do with all of this new tech. Should we embrace each innovation that comes along and delight in progress qua progress, do we adopt only certain inventions which are developed in accordance with strict ethical standards and which can only be used according to a certain ethos, or do we reject new technologies and go back to older ways of doing things? (I admit we could probably fix the road rage problem if everyone had to ride a mule instead of drive an automobile.) Different groups throughout the history of the Church have answered the question in different ways. The first and most obvious is the “Christ Against Culture” mindset of the Amish and Mennonite communities (and my mother’s constant assertion computers are tools of Satan). All technology beyond that achieved by the 17th/18th centuries is eschewed as evil, and an appropriately contemporary German society is promoted as the ideal.

Most of us find that particular solution to be a bit extreme. At the other extreme, then, is the early adoption of all technologies regardless of any external factor. (Think of people waiting in line for weeks to get the latest iPhone. No concern for anything but the phone.) In this view of technology, progress is good because it’s progress. It’s a new way of doing things, and the new way is better. New technology allows for society to progress in other ways: better healthcare, more energy-efficient homes, cheaper clothes, etc. The tech in question could be entirely dependent upon slave labor for its production, or it could have required the death of a human embryo during its research and development phase. Moral and ethical issues simply don’t matter: the technology is the ultimate.

The more balanced middle view takes the ethical concerns into account when considering what technology to promote and what to eschew. If a medical treatment is developed using fetal/embryonic stem cells, it is to be rejected, but perhaps it can be replicated using adult stem cells. If a computer requires child labor, it shouldn’t be bought or even allowed on the market. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to ascertain these particular details most of the time. In our globalized economy, a single gadget or gizmo could need a dozen countries and even more labor forces to be designed, built, tested, and put into mass production, and it would take a great deal of devotion to trace each link in the chain. (But don’t let that stop you from trying when you can!) Elements of stewardship theory make it into the thought process as well. Christians should look for green solutions to transportation (fuel efficient and hybrid/electric vehicles) and other needs in an effort to show God’s love for the world He gave us to care for and steward.

Alright. Say a piece of tech passes the test and makes it into your hands. What can you do with it? The easy answer is “whatever is right, just, and true” (but then you just sound like Superman). Cameras on cell phones, tablet PC’s, and laptops make it much easier to stay in touch with people around the globe. Families connect via Skype or FaceTime, and many companies now conduct interviews over the Internet. But video technology in general can also be horribly abused. Pornography, sexting, and other sexually immoral practices depend upon the wrong use of a technology which can be used in right ways. People can hide behind a keyboard and post things on social media sites which are deliberately inflammatory and personally degrading (or just plain narcissistic) when they would never do so under normal “in-person” conditions. The rise of “stalkers” is also largely contingent upon the misapplication of technological innovations, and the list goes on. It’s important to realize technology in these cases may not be inherently immoral or evil; it’s the intent behind the use of the device.

It’s difficult to think of any invention which is fundamentally evil (although the electric chair leaps to mind fairly quickly). The problem is the person behind the gizmo. We have all sinned and continue to come short of the divine ideal. All of us have sin in our lives, and much of that sin depends on misusing some “thing,” whether it’s the Internet or a piece of paper. As always, the rule of thumb is to listen to the Holy Spirit and to evaluate the impact the tech will have on our walks with God. If we get addicted to the Internet, a television show, or something more sinister, we’ve walked away from God a bit. If we violate someone’s privacy or watch someone violate his/her body, then we walk away from God a bit more. By being open to the guidance of God and making deliberate decisions incorporating a Christian ethic, we can be sure to adopt helpful technological innovations and put them to use in the edification of the kingdom of God on earth.